Wednesday, February 28, 2007

30 Rock

Thursdays at 8:30 (Central) on NBC.

Created by Tina Fey and Lorne Michaels from Saturday Night Live, this sitcom is funny and clever. Tina Fey stars as Liz Lemon, with Tracy Morgan as Tracy Jordan and Alec Baldwin as Jack Donaughey. Tina's writing was great on SNL, and 30 Rock has proved to be an even better showcase for her biting and insightful wit. She voices the thoughts of the highly intelligent, marginally attractive, never quite cool group (I know, because that's who I am, too), better than any show I've seen.

Alec Baldwin imbues Jack Donaughey with playful condescension, as well as extreme confidence and lack of remorse for his status as a rich and powerful man. My favorite line so far, which sums his character up, comes after he is asked why he is wearing a tux on his way out of the office, he replys with "Its 6:00 in the evening. What am I, a Farmer?".

Tina Fey and Tracy Jordan are also very strong, as is Jack McBrayer as Kenneth the Page. The show's writing assumes the intelligence of its viewers, which may explain its relatively low ratings. It is more accessible than Arrested Development, but still needs some help to make it. The first few episodes were very stiff, most likely the result of being overworked and 'focus grouped' by the NBC gurus, but now it is great every week.

If you like Tina Fey, Arrested Development, The Office, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, you'll probably like this show as well. Please watch. Below is a link to a clip.

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The Last King of Scotland Rating: B (Editorial note: I’ve conformed my rating system to those of my co-writers)

The Last King of Scotland tells the story of real Ugandan leader Idi Amin (Oscar-winning Forrest Whittaker) from the perspective of Dr. Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), an invented character employed to give us a glimpse within Amin’s world. Garrigan is a Scottish lad who leaves his homeland for Uganda to see the world just after graduating from med school. Upon arriving in Uganda, he quickly displays his love for casual sex (an unnamed girl) and married women (a post-Scully Gillian Anderson), a malatov cocktail that will blow up when the married woman and the casual sex involve one of Amin’s wives. Soon after arriving in Africa, he meets Amin who takes a shine to the young doctor, asking him to be his personal doctor and, soon, his advisor.

While McAvoy is solid as the Scottish doctor who flings himself into the deep end of the pool before realizing he can’t swim, this film belongs to Forrest Whittaker. His charisma reminds us that in the moment evil is always more charming and attractive than good. But director Kevin Macdonald has more going on here than an historical recounting. The Last King is \ about the corruption of power and the evil residing in all people. At one point Garrigan calls Amin a child, but is every bit the child himself. There are real consequences for sleeping with a king’s wife, especially one noted for cannibalizing his enemies and putting their severed heads around the dining room table during dinners (blessedly not shown). Like Amin, McAvoy manipulates power to his end and takes what is not his. Africa and its people are the playground and playmates supplied to a rich, spoiled brat. The film ultimately deals with the monster in us all, the search for redemption, and the selfishness of both the West and the leaders of Africa.

Historical note: The backlash against Amin’s leadership in Uganda (based in northern Uganda) lead to current President Yoweri Museveni’s reign. Museveni is from southern Uganda. His lashing out against the North during and following his seizure of power lead to the existence of Joseph Koney’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in the north, one of the great employers of child soldiers in Africa today (the existence of which lead to the production of the Invisible Children documentary). The LRA has waged a 20-year civil war in Uganda, but also fights the southern Sudanese on behalf of the Government of Sudan, who funds and arms them. One of the other major provinces in Sudan is Darfur, making Sudan complicit in two of the largest ongoing humanitarian crises in the world.

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Little Miss Sunshine 8 (out of ten)

Yes, I’m a little late to this one, but I caught it on DVD before the Oscars Sunday night. Crammed with all the love and dysfunction you can pack into one yellow, clutch-deprived VW Van, Little Miss Sunshine is a laugh-out-loud comedy about family, adversity, and little girl beauty contests. Alan Arkin plays the American id as a porn-loving, drug-using, foul-mouthed grandpa. Steve Carell’s suicidal Proust expert who’s love interest has just chosen his nemesis over him is hysterical and appears to be the only sane person in the family. Toni Colette and Greg Kinnear are at their dependable best as a mother holding a family together and a father/motivational speaker who’s failing at both (ironically, because he actually believes his techniques). And not to be left out Paul Dano does a bang-up job as a wanna-be-fighter-pilot adolescent stuck in a family that isn’t nearly as bad as he believes, or at least not for the reasons he believes.

But it is Little Miss Sunshine, or rather Abigail Breslin’s Olive competing in that beauty competition, who brings heart to this movie. So much heart, in fact, that it’s easy to view this movie as only a deviant family comedy preaching the age-old principle of sticking together to overcome all obstacles. But to stop there is to miss the wicked skewering of a post-Jon Benet society that continues to dress up little girls as women and teach them to walk, talk, and dance like adults. That Olive takes this to it’s logical conclusion and goes into a strip tease of sorts on stage as her talent is one of the most courageous stances for true family values seen on screen in years. This movie isn’t endorsing its family. It’s pointing out that in a world this screwed-up, they’re trying to love each other and trying to “be there” for each other. Tragically, the family they show us mirrors their VW van, bright and shiny yellow on the outside, seriously messed-up on the inside, but trying to make it. Don’t stop at the family, though, check out the world shown us in their microcosm. A world that is a beauty contest pumping out sexualized kids and adults who aren’t quite sure why that would be wrong.

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Saturday, February 24, 2007

You Can Count on Me (2000) - A-

Laura Linney plays a small town upstate New York single mom who works at a bank. Her life with her son is turned upside down when her brother (Mark Ruffalo) comes to visit. Her 8-year-old son lives in a fantasy world but since Ruffalo treats him as an adult, a strong bond is formed quickly. But things aren't easy for Linney or Ruffalo who were victims of a tragedy at an early age. If it sounds like an Indie Sundance movie, it was. But this one actually holds up on repeat viewings.

Ruffalo burst on the movie scene with his natural performance as ne'er-do-well drifter Terry. Linney is equally solid and their scenes together are surprisingly affecting. The musical choices are perfect and the script is unpredictable. Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, important themes such as faith, finding purpose and meaning in life, and family ties are intelligently explored. Lonergan plays the town priest and his discussions with Linney as she searches for herself, God, and purpose are first-rate. It's efficiently directed and edited without being flashy. But this is a writing and acting showcase all the way. A-

Favorite scene: Ruffalo takes his nephew to shoot pool.

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Friday, February 23, 2007

Nine Lives - A-

Released in 2005. Out on DVD.

This picture is a series of 9 separate vignettes, all featuring roughly 15 minutes in the lives of 9 women. There is a thin connection to the different characters, though the 'connection' is not the point of the film. Each of the 9 'lives' is extraordinarily well written in a voice that is realistic and not intentionally dramatic. The majority of the vignettes are visceral and intense, but in a sophisticated, understated and emotional way. There are several standout lives, my favorite being the last one, starring Glenn Close and Dakota Fanning. It is about loss and the absence of a loved one.

The writer/director of this movie was Rodrigo Garcia, and the executive producer was Babel and 21 Grams' Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu. Given the quality of Children of Men, Pan's Labryinth, Babel, and Nine Lives (all of which are written and directed by Mexicans), not to mention Volver and all of Pedro Almadovar's work, I think immigration is starting to work out for us after all.

To watch scenes from each vignette, you can go to the site linked below, and click on the name of the characters. Enjoy.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007


Released on DVD this week.

Babel contains four stories that involve miscommunication and culture-clashes. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett play a married couple vacationing in Morocco when she is accidentally shot. He struggles to reach the US embassy and get her proper medical care. Meanwhile, the kids that shot them, two Moroccan brothers are pursued by the local police. Back in the US, the kids of Pitt/Blanchett are taken across the Mexican border by their illegal nanny (Adriana Barraza) when she wants to attend her son's wedding. And in Japan, a deaf teenager (Rinko Kikuchi) attempts to connect with anyone, in any way possible, after her mother's death.

The stories are all involving, but the Moroccan kids aren't given much to do. In the other 3 stories, there are uniformly powerful performances. I'm still not sure how Pitt didn't get nominated for his emotional, complex performance. It probably has something to do with leaving missionary-position Jennifer Aniston for the priapism-inducing Angelina Jolie. The movie does have a total of seven nominations, all deserved. The editing is suberb, deftly juggling all four stories. The transitions from the suburban Tokyo to the deserts of Morocco and Mexico are never disjointing.

It's become fashionable to dislike Babel. It's been called "this year's Crash", but Babel doesn't have one ridiculous coincidence after another in its last hour. Some others complain that the Japanese story connects with the other three too loosely. That's true, but since the movie is about miscommunication and failing to relate to those around you, I think that's kind of the point. A-

Semi-spoiler: The movie gets bonus points for having the guts to allow the first-world Americans and Japanese succeed and the third-world Moroccans and Mexicans suffer. Pretty honest and grim stuff.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Oscar Picks - Lawyer

Best Picture:
Will Win: Babel
Should Win: Children of Men

Best Director:
Will Win: Martin Scorsese (Departed)
Should Win: Paul Greengrass (United 93)

Best Actor:
Will Win: Forrest Whitaker (Last King of Scotland)
Should Win: Forrest Whitaker
Worst Nomination Ever: Will Smith (Pursuit of Happyness)

Best Actress:
Will Win: Helen Mirren (The Queen)
Should Win: Helen Mirren

Best Supporting Actor:
Will Win: Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine)
Should Win: Mark Wahlberg (Departed)

Best Supporting Actress:
Will Win: Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls)
Should Win: Rinko Kikuchi (Babel)

Will Win: Children of Men
Should Win: Children of Men

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Oscar Nominations - Major Categories

Performance by an actor in a leading role

Leonardo DiCaprio in “Blood Diamond”
Ryan Gosling in “Half Nelson”
Peter O’Toole in “Venus”
Will Smith in “The Pursuit of Happyness”
Forest Whitaker in “The Last King of Scotland”

Performance by an actor in a supporting role

Alan Arkin in “Little Miss Sunshine”
Jackie Earle Haley in “Little Children”
Djimon Hounsou in “Blood Diamond”
Eddie Murphy in “Dreamgirls”
Mark Wahlberg in “The Departed”

Performance by an actress in a leading role

Penélope Cruz in “Volver”
Judi Dench in “Notes on a Scandal”
Helen Mirren in “The Queen”
Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada”
Kate Winslet in “Little Children”

Performance by an actress in a supporting role

Adriana Barraza in “Babel”
Cate Blanchett in “Notes on a Scandal”
Abigail Breslin in “Little Miss Sunshine”
Jennifer Hudson in “Dreamgirls”
Rinko Kikuchi in “Babel”

Achievement in cinematography

“The Black Dahlia” (Universal) Vilmos Zsigmond
“Children of Men” (Universal) Emmanuel Lubezki
“The Illusionist” (Yari Film Group) Dick Pope
“Pan’s Labyrinth” (Picturehouse) Guillermo Navarro
“The Prestige” (Buena Vista) Wally Pfister

Achievement in directing

“Babel” Alejandro González Iñárritu
“The Departed” Martin Scorsese
“Letters from Iwo Jima” Clint Eastwood
“The Queen” Stephen Frears
“United 93” Paul Greengrass

Best documentary feature

“Deliver Us from Evil” (Lionsgate)A Disarming Films Production Amy Berg and Frank Donner
“An Inconvenient Truth” (Paramount Classics and Participant Productions)A Lawrence Bender/Laurie David ProductionDavis Guggenheim
“Iraq in Fragments” (Typecast Releasing in association with HBO Documentary Films)A Typecast Pictures/Daylight Factory Production James Longley and John Sinno
“Jesus Camp” (Magnolia Pictures)A Loki Films ProductionHeidi Ewing and Rachel Grady
“My Country, My Country” (Zeitgeist Films)A Praxis Films Production Laura Poitras and Jocelyn Glatzer

Achievement in film editing

“Babel” (Paramount and Paramount Vantage) Stephen Mirrione and Douglas Crise
“Blood Diamond” (Warner Bros.) Steven Rosenblum
“Children of Men” (Universal) Alex Rodríguez and Alfonso Cuarón
“The Departed” (Warner Bros.)Thelma Schoonmaker
“United 93” (Universal and StudioCanal) Clare Douglas, Christopher Rouse and Richard Pearson

Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original score)

“Babel” (Paramount and Paramount Vantage) Gustavo Santaolalla
“The Good German” (Warner Bros.) Thomas Newman
“Notes on a Scandal” (Fox Searchlight) Philip Glass
“Pan’s Labyrinth” (Picturehouse) Javier Navarrete
“The Queen” (Miramax, Pathé and Granada) Alexandre Desplat

Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original song)

“I Need to Wake Up” from “An Inconvenient Truth”(Paramount Classics and Participant Productions) Music and Lyric by Melissa Etheridge
“Listen” from “Dreamgirls”(DreamWorks and Paramount) Music by Henry Krieger and Scott CutlerLyric by Anne Preven
“Love You I Do” from “Dreamgirls”(DreamWorks and Paramount) Music by Henry KriegerLyric by Siedah Garrett
“Our Town” from “Cars”(Buena Vista)Music and Lyric by Randy Newman
“Patience” from “Dreamgirls”(DreamWorks and Paramount)Music by Henry KriegerLyric by Willie Reale

Best motion picture of the year

“The Departed”
“Letters from Iwo Jima”
“Little Miss Sunshine”
“The Queen”

Adapted screenplay

“Borat Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” (20th Century Fox) Screenplay by Sacha Baron Cohen & Anthony Hines & Peter Baynham & Dan MazerStory by Sacha Baron Cohen & Peter Baynham & Anthony Hines & Todd Phillips
“Children of Men” (Universal)Screenplay by Alfonso Cuarón & Timothy J. Sexton and David Arata and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby
“The Departed” (Warner Bros.) Screenplay by William Monahan
“Little Children” (New Line) Screenplay by Todd Field & Tom Perrotta
“Notes on a Scandal” (Fox Searchlight) Screenplay by Patrick Marber

Original screenplay

“Babel” (Paramount and Paramount Vantage)Written by Guillermo Arriaga
“Letters from Iwo Jima” (Warner Bros.)Screenplay by Iris YamashitaStory by Iris Yamashita & Paul Haggis
“Little Miss Sunshine” (Fox Searchlight)Written by Michael Arndt
“Pan’s Labyrinth” (Picturehouse)Written by Guillermo del Toro
“The Queen” (Miramax, Pathé and Granada)Written by Peter Morgan

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

Breach - C+

In theaters.
This film stars Chris Cooper as Robert Hanssen, an important FBI official that is spying for the Russians, and Ryan Philippe as Mike O'Neill, the FBI agent in training that is given the job of catching Hanssen 'in the act' of treason. Based on the true story of Robert Hanssen, who was brought to justice in early 2001, this film shows the investigation and throws in some halfway interesting subplots for good measure.

Overall, the film is predictable and not especially interesting, unless you have never seen a spy movie before. Chris Cooper's portrayal of Hanssen was the best part about the movie, along with Laura Linney's performance as O'Neill's superior. Philippe was not good. His part was terribly written, although that is no excuse for the woodenness...his attempts at conveying the intense emotions that must have been felt by O'Neill were invisible. His relationship with his young wife, Julianna, is the most annoying part of the movie. Almost as annoying as the Adrian Grenier/Anne Hathaway relationship in Devil Wears Prada (yeah, I saw it, screw you...D+), but not quite. Julianna is supposed to be 'East German', but her accent makes her sound like she is deaf, not German (It sounded like Marlee Matlin as Eva Braun).

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Raging Bull - A+

After watching Funny Farm, it seemed appropriate to bring it down a little with one of my top 5 movies of all time, Raging Bull. Robert DeNiro plays Jake La Motta, a Bronx boxer from the 40's and 50's, in this unflinching look at, among other things, the male psyche. This viewing I was especially affected by the theme music, Intermezzo from "Cavalleria Rusticana," as it tracks the emotional arc of the film. Notable in the film is the lack of any portrayal or reference to La Motta's upbringing, although its implications are in plain view throughout.

Stunning visuals, breathtaking performances, and a pitch perfect score combine to make this a work of art. Some interesting notes: Because of the critical and commercial failure of his previous movie (New York, New York) and a serious cocaine addiction that he had only recently overcome prior to making the film, Scorsese was convinced that he would never make another movie and, therefore, he put his heart and soul into making Raging Bull the best film he could; upon its release in 1980 its cinematography and editing were universally praised, some saw the film as an empty exercise in style; it was made on a budget of $18 million USD to film and promote and grossed $40 million. Raging Bull lost Best Picture to Ordinary People.

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Funny Farm - B+

This is one of my all-time favorite comedies. The 1988 Chevy Chase movie features classic 'fish out of water' and 'city/country' bits, all of which come to light when Chevy and his wife move to the rural and seemingly idyllic Red Bud. This is Chevy at his best, in one of his last funny roles. I never quite figured out why his career has been dead for the past 10 years; when his comedy is working it is as funny as it gets.

The best scenes: Lamb Fries ("Yes, sir, I do believe that's a new record"), the new dog (immediately) running away, and yellow dog.

Not a transcendent experience, but funny.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Flags of Our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima

Flags of Our Fathers is based on a book by James Bradley, whose father John Bradley was one of the three (of six) surviving soldiers who raised the second flag on top of Mount Suribachi on day 4 of the battle of Iwo Jima. The surviving three members are then sent back to America to raise money for the war effort.

The movie jumps backward and forward in time from present day to pre-invasion to mid-battle to the war bond tour to the 50s and struggles to find a cohesive narrative. It does follow the writer James Bradley as he interviews for the book, but flashbacks also occur with his post-traumatic stress disorder father as well as drunken flashbacks with co-flagraiser Ira Hayes, a stereotypical drunken Indian written with all the subtlety and insight that we've come to expect from screenwriter Paul Haggis (that's sarcasm, folks).

The movie tries hard to be Saving Private Ryan with modern day family emotion, the randomness of the battle scenes, and desturated color scheme. It also want to be The Thin Red Line with the use of extended cameos (Paul Walker, Jamie Bell, etc.). There are some strong scenes, not least of which is John Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) finding his friend's body tortured to death. Director Clint Eastwood chooses not to show the body, only Phillippe's reaction, which is surprisingly effective. The recreation of the flag-raising is also performed well, almost matter-of-factly. Photographer Joe Rosenthal doesn't realize he's just taken one of the most famous pictures ever. But in the end, the powerful moments can't completely overcome the clunky structure and Eastwood's typical languid pacing.

The problem with Letters from Iwo Jima is different. The movie takes place more linearly with occasional flashbacks. The flashbacks stall any momentum the film has without ever really adding anything to the characters or story. Told in Japanese (with subtitles), the story centers on 2 Japanese soldiers, General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) and Saigo, a private. The movie begins as they prepare for the American attack and continues throughout the battle of Iwo Jima nearly entirely from the Japanese perspective.

Eastwood shamelessly uses feces and fart jokes and just as shamelessly tries to draw sympathy using a horse and a dog in separate scenes. No, really! It's not quite as ridiculously manipulative as Maggie's family in Million Dollar Baby, but it's pretty awful.

But the worst part of Letter from Iwo Jima for me is its depiction of the American soldiers. They are shown killing Japanese men who have surrendered and pose no threat. I don't doubt that this happened, but like a famous video in Iraq, the reality (and accurate history, as if Eastwood gave a damn) is that Japanese soldiers would often pretend to surrender only to become suicide bombers or kill in other ways. Worse still, when an American is captured, he is given morphine and treated well. In the actual battle, it was more likely for him to be castrated and defecated on before being tortured to death.

The music in both movies (by Clint in Flags and his son Kyle in Letters) is simple, repetitive and ultimately grating. Please, someone give Clint some money to hire an actual composer.

Eastwood spent over two hours trying to humanize the Japanese soldiers. Terrence Malick was infinitely more successful in The Thin Red Line in a couple of minutes. Letters from Iwo Jima is dishonest, shameless, manipulative, and protracted.

Flags of Our Fathers: B- Letters From Iwo Jima: C+

Medical mistakes: The American soldier treated well by the Japanese (I just threw up again) appeared to be directly shot in the heart, but lived for several hours. But maybe he had situs inversus.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007


Mark Wahlberg plays 30-year-old Vince Papale, a bartender in South Philadelphia who regularly plays pick-up tackle football with his friends. He's clearly the best player on the field. When new Philadelphia Eagles football coach Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear) offers open tryouts to improve morale and encourage involvement of the fanbase, Papale's friends convince him to tryout. Since there is a movie being made about him 30 years later and not the hundreds of other guys who tried out, it should come as no surprise that he makes the cut.

But predictability and familiarity are the only setbacks in an otherwise successful movie. Papale's friends are well cast and interact well. The attention to period detail with respect to the haircuts, cars, and music is well done. The 70s rock songs, in particular, are mixed well with the dialogue and action. But please, editors and directors, stop using songs from Boogie Nights (especially if Mark Wahlberg is on your monitor). Unless your last name is Scorsese, you won't do it any better.

It's not quite as good as Friday Night Lights, which had bigger themes about high schoolers dealing with the future, or the similarly structured Miracle, which was about an event uplifting for the entire country, not just one East-coast city. It doesn't dabble into politics like those 2 films either, but Invincible is still a solid sports movie. B

Medical mistakes: None. Of note, the definitive study on why everything starts to hurt the day you turn 30 has yet to be performed.

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Half Nelson

Ryan Gosling gives a realistic, believable performance as a drug-addicted inner city teacher who becomes close to one of his students named Drey (Shareeka Epps). Gosling teaches history and is supposed to be going over Civil Rights, but is off the curriculum and trying to teach something more applicable to daily life. This includes opposing viewpoints, change, and forces beyond any single person's control. Drey has hard-working mother and often remains unsupervised. She is befriended by a local drug-dealer and Gosling tries to keep her safe. (The "if you can reach one person, you've done your job" discussion is brought up in an early scene).

Interspersed with the narrative are history reports from the students about Attica, Central American Politics, and Brown vs. the Board of Education. Archival footage is used well during these sections. Of course, Gosling gives a drunken speech about present-day Iraq. But thankfully, the movie doesn't try to answer most of the questions it asks.

Epps and Gosling are terrific together and Gosling has rightfully received accolades for his performance. It looks like he's here to stay and won't forever be remembered as an SNL music skit punchline. The movie itself looks like the low-budget indie it is with shaky camera work on top of grainy images. It will make you think, but you won't be on cloud 9 at the end. B

Medical Mistakes: None. But kids, don't mix alcohol and drugs, even if your teachers do. Wait, don't use alcohol or drugs separately either. It's illegal, or didn't they teach you that in school?

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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Smokin' Aces 3 (out of ten)

Not everyone who throws paint at a canvas is Jackson Pollock, and not everyone who layers violence and vulgarity is Tarantino, but my guess is both camps think they are. The tragedy of Smokin' Aces is that there are strong actors plying their trade at close to the top of their game throughout this mess of a movie. Jeremy Pivens, great. Jason Batemen (in little more than a cameo) as a coked-out actor, fabulous. Ben Affleck, Andy Garcia, Ray Liotta, Ryan Reynolds; solid, solid, solid, solid. Even the singers Alicia Keys and Common prove they've got skills if they ever want to quite their day jobs. But the actors are put in increasingly ridiculous scenarios involving multiple hitmen, bazookas, hand-held chainsaws, some sort of four-foot gun I only recognize from the James Bond games, and three scottish, punk-rock/goth sadists who are shooting, burning, or slicing everything they see. And that's before the serious, I-have-a-moral-allegiance-to-something-higher-than-the-agency ending that would be ridiculous even if it made logical sense. You don't bring a knife to a gunfight and you don't bring your morals to a nihilist fight. Not if you expect to be taken seriously.

I guess I recommend it to the Saw crowd that might be interested in better acting and new locales. Otherwise, stay away from these layers of blood, drugs, and asexual sex masquerading as film.

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Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Queen - A-

In theaters.

On the way to our theater, we noticed the sign below, included for your enjoyment:

This movie tells story of how the Queen of England and the entire English monarchy handled the death of Princess Diana in the summer of 1997. Her adherence to tradition and technicalities prevented her or any other Royals from making any public statement for 6 days after Diana's death. The public relations nightmare this causes is the central conflict in the picture. Tony Blair is portrayed prominently in the film, basking in his well-received handling of the national mourning and trying in vain to try and coax her Majesty into the modern era.

Helen Mirren is exceptional as the Queen, and is predicted to win the Oscar for Best Actress. There are some interesting themes throughout the film; speaking truth to power, tradition versus progression, generational conflict, and the 'weight of the crown.' I have less than zero interest in 'the Royals,' and never quite understood the British obsession in the first place, so that utter lack of interest in the framework of the story may be responsible for a B+ rating of a Best Picture contender. There are several powerful moments in the film, but overall I wasn't all that impressed.

(legal note: truth is an absolute defense to defamation.)

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Friday, February 9, 2007

The Illusionist - B

Out on DVD.

In this movie, Edward Norton plays Eisenheim, a peasant boy cum spectacular magician who is still in love with a girl (the ever 'talented' Jessica Biel) of royal blood. She is caught in a political engagement to the corrupt and arrogant crown prince (Rufus Sewell), but longs for her true love, Eisenheim. Paul Giamatti is the police inspector and crown prince loyalist with torn allegiances.

This movie is a solid mystery, with pretty pictures, great performances, and a good score. Director Neil Burger, a relative newcomer, imparts his story with striking cinematography and interesting visual effects.

Compared to the other quality magician movie of 2006, The Prestige, this movie is just not that great. The Prestige was much more engrossing and struck several deeper chords.

(legal note - hearsay is when one person recounts the words of a third party; it is forbidden in court except for a few exceptions)

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Thursday, February 8, 2007

The Fountain - B

Coming soon to DVD.

This film explores 3 different time periods in the existence of Hugh Jackman's character. In one, he is a conquistador seeking eternal life on behalf of Isabel, queen of Spain. In another, set in the present, he is a neurosurgeon obsessed with finding a cure for his wife's (Rachel Weisz)cancer. In the final portrayal, he is alone, floating in the year 2500 in an orb containing a tree.

Director Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream) has weaved an extremely dense and emotional tale focusing on questions of life, death, the afterlife and love. His use of light, particularly soft yellow light, provides a thematic element that is consistent throughout each story. He focuses the camera so tightly on the actors faces that it leaves you (pleasantly) distressed to see the context of the scene. The score features orchestral and industrial rock fusion, and is the best of the year (maybe tied with Departed, but all of this is original, so it gets the edge).

The directorial elements are all there, as would be expected, but ultimately the story needed probably 2 more hours to be complete. I am hoping the DVD release includes a director's cut and commentary track. A couple of interesting notes: Brad Pitt was originally set to play the Hugh Jackman role, but bailed as the sets were being built in Australia and Rachel Weisz is Darren Aronofsky's wife.

This is a movie that stays with you after you see it. Needless to say, if you enjoyed "Little Man", you shouldn't bother watching this.

(legal note - a special warranty deed only warrants title during the period of the seller's ownership while a general warranty deed puts the seller on the hook for defending title to its inception).

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Wednesday, February 7, 2007

The Science of Sleep

Gael Garcia Bernal plays Stephane, a man who has vivid dreams and daydreams to escape current problems including his mundane new job. He develops a friendship with a coworker named Guy who becomes a father figure. He meets a creative woman named Stephanie, who lives across the hallway in their apartment complex. Stephane deals with his disappointing new job and romantic failures by daydreaming more and escaping reality.

Director Michel Gondry cowrote the script, which is setup to let his directing run wild. He employs stop-motion animation, rear-screen projection, and numerous other tricks to create Stephane's vivid dreams. Reversing film is used to good effect. The dream sequences are striking, particularly an elaborate city created by paper and blocks. But after a while it's like watching the Sledgehammer video over and over again.

Gondry's visual style served him well in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where Charlie Kaufman wrote the script. Kaufman is missed here. Gondry felt Kaufman received too much of the credit for that movie. In the Science of Sleep, there is no science, just a daydreaming "artist" who doesn't want to face reality. OK for a 4 minute video, not a feature film. At some point, Stephane goes from creative and interesting to pathetic and creepy. Still, there's enough interesting thoughts and technique on display here to sort of enjoy it. B-

Medical mistakes: Only the common misconception that schizophrenia means two personalities. (The schism is between the racing thoughts on the inside at the flat affect on the outside.)

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Sunday, February 4, 2007

Pan's Labryinth - A-

This film is about a young girl dealing with her difficult circumstances by creating an elaborate fantasyworld. The backdrop for this fantasyworld is rural Spain at the tail end of World War II. Isabel's primary oppressor is her stepfather, a vicious commander of Axis Spanish forces. Guillermo Del Toro's story, direction and creatures come together to create a powerful fable.

The simple score (featured prominently in the preview above) provides a haunting yet hopeful tone for the film, and portends is tragic end. Most of the main characters are well-developed, with the exception of Isabel's mother and stepfather, both of whom are one-dimensional and somewhat cliched. The 'fantasy' angle made me initially reticent to see the movie, but within the context of the film it is very appropriate and is used to maximum effect by the director. Del Toro apparently based much of Isabel's character on his own childhood; he grew up with his extremely religious grandmother and she literally exorcised him 4 times during childhood for drawing creatures and monsters.

(conservative parenting rant) Several portions of the film are exceedingly violent and this is definitely not a film for children. This fact was lost on the 4 or 5 families that lumbered into the theater with children under 5 in tow. Apparently if a movie features any type of make believe character it is automatically appropriate for a 3 year old, torturing and death scenes be damned.

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Friday, February 2, 2007

The Office Episode 3-15 Ben Franklin

Originally aired Feb. 1.

The US series is now over 40 episodes old and continues to show originality which I expect to dwindle every week. And every new episode has at least one fresh idea. In this episode, instead of hiring a male stripper for Phyllis's bachelorette party (for equal opportunity), Jim calls the Scholastic Speaker of Pennsylvania and Ben Franklin shows up. The ladies of the office were expecting a stripper and they get a little out of hand with one of the Founding Fathers.

Earlier this season, I worried when they disposed of so many of the characters from the Stamford branch after the merger. (Only Karen remains, although Andy may return after anger management.) I thought they should have kept Dwight at Staples for a few more weeks. But clearly, the writers/creators know what they're doing and have deep reserves of stories and plotlines. B+

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What do you get if you cross the testosterone-drenched action pictures from the 80s with the kinetic visual "style" of Michael Bay? A bloody mess.

Jason Statham plays a hit man who is injected with a poison that will slowly kill him until he realizes he feels better when his adrenaline is pumping and his heart is racing. He does everything he can, including fighting, drugs, sex, and driving fast to keep himself alive. Basically it's Speed in a human body, just add the violence of Total Recall and the sexism of MASH.

For those of you who just put this in your Netflix queue, I know a couple of psychiatrists to help you.

Statham is a solid action star who is pretty good in the Transporter movies. He has a natural charisma and does well with this ridiculous situation. He's best when trying to keep his occupation from his girlfriend Amy Smart. Set in Los Angeles, the movie serves up every possible racist cliche not caring about who's offended. It is somewhat refreshing to see a movie like this in a PC world. The violence is way over the top, the climax is a ripoff of True Romance, and the movie treats women alternatively as sex objects or dogs (sometimes both simultaneously- Ahem). This probably would play best at a frathouse. C

Medical mistake: If you inject epinephrine intravenously, you will have the opposite effect of viagra. (But maybe Statham is more of a man than the rest of us.)

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Thursday, February 1, 2007

Tom Waits "On the Nickel" (circa 1981)

While I've been a quasi-fan ever since an unnamed Italian gave me a copy of The Early Years, Volume 1, i've recently fallen under the spell of "On the nickel". This is music for people who like their lyrics served black with a voice shot through with cigarettes and whiskey. The genre is adult lullabye. "If you don't get my letter, you'll know that i'm in jail, and what becomes of the little boys that never say their prayers? Well, they're sleeping like a baby on the nickel over there" According to, on the nickel refers to fifth street, Los Angeles, aka skid row.

The music is basic and Waits cuts away any hint of wit or lyrical flourishes. He's an old boxer without the energy to dance and juke, throwing straight punches and daring you to stand and take them.

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Extras - Episode 10

Available on HBO on demand. Premieres Sunday.

This episode features a glib and cocky Chris Martin (lead singer of Coldplay) trying to use a charity appearance to cross promote the new Coldplay greatest hits albums ("couldn't the refugees at least be carrying the cd around?"). Despite being an actor in a 'broad' comedy, Andy (Ricky Gervais) receives a nomination for a BAFTA (British Oscar) for his character on 'When the Whistle Blows'. At the BAFTA ceremony he gets caught up in multiple unfortunate situations, ultimately resulting in his being banned from all BAFTA events (except "the Welsh BAFTA's").

The arc of the show has morphed it into an homage to Curb Your Enthusiasm now, which subtracts from its originality, but not from its quality or laughs.

For those without HBO and wanting an (R rated) taste of this series, go here:

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